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A Bridgehead to Peace May Be Lost Forever

October 08, 2000|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman is an Israeli author and journalist with the Daily Ha'aretz who specializes in intelligence and national security

TEL AVIV — For years after sunset, I have run from my house in suburban northern Tel Aviv, along the coast of the Mediterranean, to the old quarter of Jaffa and back, a distance of 12 miles. Last Tuesday, when I reached the Abulafia bakery, a well-known eatery and a landmark frequented by tourists and Israelis, Jews and Arabs, a police checkpoint stopped me. The 3,000-year-old city of Jaffa, now a part of greater Tel Aviv, was aflame. Hundreds of young Israeli Arabs had clashed with police, throwing stones at buses, overturning cars and smashing windows of shops, banks and post offices.

Similar incidents turned dozens of other towns, townships and villages across Israel into battle zones. Thousands of Israeli Arabs took to the streets in an impressive yet frightening show of anger and hatred, supposedly in solidarity with Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The death toll is mounting; at least 1,500 have been injured.

The new orgy of death has repercussions far beyond the number of casualties. First, it is an extension of the traditional Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Second, it is a threatening expression and a serious warning that this national political conflict is on the verge of transforming itself into a religious war centered on the Temple Mount, the site where the Jewish Temple stood 2,500 years ago and that today houses two sacred Muslim mosques. Third, and more important to most Israelis, the violence has shattered a long-standing vision: that despite obstacles and difficulties, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs could live peacefully side-by-side, as equal citizens in the state of Israel.

If a fragile truce brokered by U.S., French and Egyptians officials holds, life may soon return to normal, scars may be healed and damaged property repaired. But Israeli Jews will have to face the traumatic new reality that the friction is not merely a conflict between the state of Israel and its Palestinian and Arab neighbors, but also domestic strife between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Since 1948, there has been a belief (some argue it has always been a disillusionment) that Israeli Arabs would serve as a bridgehead to reach peace between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, especially with the Palestinians. That bridge has considerably weakened. That outcome is a heavy burden that liberal and left-of-center Israelis, in particular, will have to carry.

Surprisingly, all sides agree about the facts and their chronology. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks deadlocked after the failure at Camp David to reach an overall agreement. The Palestinian Authority agreed to suspend its declaration of an independent state in the hope that a new formula would emerge and break the stalemate. Because of these developments, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government broke apart in the face of accusations from his right-wing partners that he had made too many concessions and from his left-wing partners that he was not sufficiently prepared to make more compromises.

There is also near-universal agreement that Likud leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was both a provocation and a useful pretext for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to go on a rampage. Sharon hoped to reap a few political gains and outmaneuver the possible return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the leadership of the party after the former Israeli prime minister was cleared of receiving kickbacks. It is even generally accepted that Israeli troops, in some cases (the killing of children), and Israeli police, who used live ammunition to disperse demonstrators, overreacted and showed low regard for Arab lives.

Yet, like a scene taken from Akira Kurosawa's 1950 movie "Rashomon," each side constructs its own narrative from the facts. Israeli Jews believe that the Palestinians display cruelty by sending their children to be sacrificed for political gains. Israeli Jews also find it hard to understand why Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is not appreciative of the generous concessions--the return of 90% of the remaining land still occupied by Israel--that Barak has made. Israeli Jews see the hatred in the eyes of Israeli Arabs and cannot understand where it comes from: Israeli Arabs' standard of living has dramatically improved over the last two decades; they enjoy full civil and political rights. Israeli Jews fear what they regard as the political and religious radicalization of Israeli Arabs, some of whom want to establish an Islamic theocracy, desire cultural autonomy, call for political unification with Palestinians and even demand the eradication of Israel's Zionist mandate.

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